April 24, 2014

Untangling “which” and “that”

One of the things I learned in my 10 years of teaching grammar to undergraduates is that “it” is torture.

  • For anyone paying attention that “it” is a lovely little nightmare known as an unclear pronoun reference. Am I saying that teaching grammar is torture or that learning grammar is torture? I left it confusing for effect, and because on any given day, it’s up for grabs.

While, it is true that occasionally  teaching is not fun, what I am referring to with that pronoun is learning grammar. Learning grammar, especially if you are doing it when you are older than middle school, is largely misery. And one of the primary sources for that misery is the ever-changing and oft loosely applied rules for certain elements of a sentence. One such monster? The relative pronoun.

  • If you don’t know what a relative pronoun is, stop here and go study.

Okay. Back to the point: Relative pronouns offer people struggling with grammar a special little brand of torture. At the top of the misery pyramid is trying to determine whether to use “who” or “whom,” but a close second is the confusion between “which” and “that.” Now, The Tongue Untied is willing to acknowledge that for, oh let’s say a half a millennium, people have used the two interchangeably, but we are not willing to admit that they are right.

We have rules here, and the one governing the use of “which” and “that” is as follows: Use “that” for introducing restrictive clauses and “which” for introducing non-restrictive clauses.

ARGH! Another grammar term. If you don’t know what a clause is, learn it here, but for the sake of moving this along, here’s a short primer. A clause has a subject and a verb.

The clauses using relative pronouns (i.e. who, whom, that, which) are dependent clauses. They need another clauses (usually an independent clause) to function. And the relative pronoun in the dependent clause is referring to a noun in the independent clause.

  • The man whom they arrested was innocent. “whom” relates to (see how we get “relative”?) the “man.”

Okay. When the information in that dependent clause is essential (restrictive) to the meaning of the sentence (and we are not talking about people) then we use “that.”

  • The hot dog that Ethan ate was spoiled. (we need that next clause to know just exactly what hot dog we are talking about.)

When the information in the dependent clause is not essential (non-restrictive) to the meaning of the sentence (and we are not talking about people), then we use “which.”

  • Your new haircut, which is the best one you have had in years, makes you look like a movie star.

Learn the rule and you have averted yet another grammar disaster. Fail to and you have missed an opportunity to feel superior. ;)

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  1. Ööööööoooh, so that’s how it works! Restricted claws, indeed. I prefer unrestricted freedom but not in grammar! God Bless The Tongue Untied (no tongue in cheek there).

  2. Microsoft Word’s grammar checker can even help. It knows that “which” belongs with a non-restrictive element and that non-restrictive clauses should be confined by commas.

    So the program attempts to correct sentences using commas with which and no commas with that. It’s sort of helpful. But you still need a working knowledge of whether the clause you are using is or is not restrictive! Study up. :-)

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